Figures for December 2019 - the latest data available from NHS Digital - show that there were 28,319 fully-qualified FTE GPs in England - almost unchanged from the 28,315 in September 2019.
But the loss of 277 fully-qualified FTE GPs over the full year to December 2019 means that in the four and a quarter years since former health and social care secretary Jeremy Hunt's September 2015 pledge to recruit an extra 5,000 GPs by 2020/21, the fully-qualified FTE GP workforce has dropped by 1,084 - a 4% reduction.
The rapid decline in GP partners has continued too, the data confirm - with a loss of 224 FTE partners in the three months to December 2019 alone and a decline of 977 - 5% of the FTE partner workforce - between December 2018 and December 2019.
The overall FTE GP workforce figure, which includes registrars, also dropped by 153 in the three months to December 2019 - but is up by 199 over 12 months.
In headcount terms, the overall GP workforce rose by 1,473 over the year to December 2019, while the fully-qualified workforce rose by 975.
Despite the rise in headcount numbers, the latest workforce data show the government faces an uphill battle to deliver its general election pledge to increase the GP workforce by 6,000 FTE GPs by 2024/25.
The decline of the FTE fully-qualified workforce highlights the continued struggle to retain experienced GPs at a time when numbers of trainees coming through are increasing.
Workload is rising in general practice - analysis by GPonline revealed last month that general practice delivered 1.22m appointments for every weekday in 2019, while the total number of appointments delivered in general practice in 2019 rose almost 4m to 312m.
Meanwhile, thousands of GPs have reduced their working hours or refused extra work because of uncertainty over the threat of punitive pension tax bills that can mean taking on more work costs doctors money. Although NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens gave assurances last year that the health service would pay off doctors' pension tax bills for 2019/20 to ease winter pressure, no guarantees have been given over how this will work for GPs.
Next month's budget will reveal the outcome of a government review into the issue, and BMA leaders have warned that nothing short of scrapping the annual allowance mechanism in schemes such as the NHS pension scheme will solve the crisis.
BMA GP committee workforce lead Dr Krishna Kasaraneni said: 'Today’s figures show a worrying continuation of the trend we’ve been seeing in recent years - with falling numbers of full-time GPs meaning there are fewer doctors trying to meet the needs of more and more patients.
'The continued drop of partners running practices – almost 1,000 full-time doctors in the last year – is particularly concerning. This means patients waiting too long to be seen, perhaps getting increasingly unwell, as well as GPs stretching themselves more thinly, which in turn affects their health and wellbeing.'
He warned that the government would need to do 'an awful lot more to increase recruitment and retention' - despite workforce measures announced as part of the 2020 GP contract.
Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said: 'I'm delighted that figures out today show that alongside a reduction in vacancies and an increase in the number of GPs, we’ve got record numbers of nurses working in our NHS – up by over 8,000 on the same time last year.'